With an increasing call for law firms to be run like a business, law firm chief operating officers (COOs) have gained considerable influence in recent years. Still, it may not yet be considered a glamorous position, says David Fleisher, COO at national law firm Quarles & Brady.
“It is unlikely that anyone goes to school thinking they want to be a COO at a law firm,” he quips. However, even if they didn’t go to school for the job, law firm COOs are tasked with bringing together strong financial acumen and adaptability to their organizations — which not that long ago operated from a very different play book.
Developing those skills for Fleisher came through a wide variety of experiences. After earning an undergraduate degree in accounting, Fleisher spent three years working in public accounting for KPMG before going to law school at the University of Michigan. After graduating, he joined Bryan Cave and practiced for six years as a corporate associate, and then went in-house at two public companies, gaining C-level experience as a chief financial officer and general counsel.
“I don’t think you can over-communicate in a law firm.”
He returned to Bryan Cave about a decade later, this time as COO. He took the job because he saw the chance to combine the business and finance skills from his public accounting and in-house experience with the understanding of law firms he attained from his time as outside counsel. After 11 years as COO at Bryan Cave (now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner), he joined Quarles & Brady in October 2019.
Improving Law Firm Performance
For a COO, increasing the performance of a law firm boils down to two essential levers — running the firm like a business and understanding the client perspective.
Running the firm like a business — COOs with business experience can add tremendous value to law firms that have faced increased financial pressures over the past decade. Part of the challenge is helping partners and practice leaders think about their practices from a business perspective and reframing the delivery of their services, which can be difficult.
Understanding the client perspective — COOs with in-house experience also can help a firm step into the shoes of the client. Simple things like delivering timely and accurate invoices can go a long way. “It’s something that is within our control as a law firm and in my experience, clients appreciate receiving bills promptly to help them understand the work performed,” Fleisher says.
Important Experience for COOs
The shift in the law firm operation model — fueled by greater client buying power — has led to an increased focus on profitability and a push for consolidation. That means a COO needs a particular set of skills and experiences.
Building influence — Working within a law firm operating model poses unique challenges and necessitates being involved in change and new initiatives. “As owners, partners want to be part of the decision-making process involving change, and it is important to do some selling on the front end,” Fleisher explains.
Project management — As clients’ demands for efficiency increase, so has the need for effective project management. This means acting in a more cost-effective manner through a combination of staffing structures and the use of technology, while still providing high-quality and lower-cost services.
Mergers — As firms look to strategic combinations to better achieve their growth objectives, COOs experience with negotiation, due diligence, and integration of these combinations is crucial. Indeed, integrating people, systems, and processes are essential to a successful combination.
Key Elements to Make Change Successful
In the legal industry, change is now a constant, and it is important to drill down on what it takes to successfully drive change. Doing that isn’t easy, but Fleisher highlights several important things he’s learned:
Data — Gaining the support of leaders, through data, is a must, and it helps build momentum for a broader change initiative.
Overcommunication — Fleisher advises explaining the “why” behind a change using a top-down and bottom-up approach. Crucially, this communication should come well before implementation. “I don’t think you can over-communicate in a law firm,” he says, adding that continued communication over the life of an initiative is also important.
Emphasizing trust — Fleisher has found that trust, credibility, and close relationships with the partners and business services leaders are essential in implementing change. One way to develop that trust is to truly listen to concerns of key stakeholders and seek their input as part of any change initiative.